It was during those first days of hotness. You know. When the sex is crazy and you’re vibing together like you never thought could happen. Ever. We were so great together with everything. We were in the same place emotionally, spiritually, and professionally. By the time the sex happened I was like “Okay, damn!” and Ricky was too. It was all guards down. We were thrilled with each other. I was certainly thrilled with him. He was gorgeous.
I was to start my new job in four weeks, so I came to Virginia in plenty of time to scope out the best place to settle. I’d come out the door of my new apartment building, my arms full and view obstructed with boxes for the trash, when I walked right into him.
“Just knock me down, why don’t ya’,” he said to me. I had to drop everything to see his face and notice he was smiling.
“Here, let me help you,” he said, flashing the most alluringly handsome grin I’d ever had the pleasure of seeing up close. And that was the beginning of it. He helped me get the rest of my things from the truck and we spent every day together from that time on. I’d promised myself that I was done with the one night stands and the partying and vowed to make a new start of things. This was different, I told myself. This was not the same thing.
That first week, he took me on a tour of Hampton during the day, and during the night he got a tour of me. It was so natural and easy. All our conversations were like “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” and then, “Yes…me too” or “No, me neither” or “That’s exactly how I feel about that.” So when we weren’t eating or making love, we were simply “AMEN”ing each other. It almost scared me how wonderful it was. Then, one Saturday, as we lay in bed I noticed the thing on his back.
“What’s this? A tattoo?”
“This on you lower back here.”
“Oh that,” he reached around fingering the raised skin as if he’d forgotten it was there, “It’s just a scar.”
“A scar? It looks like a tattoo. It’s a fraternity thing, isn’t it?” I slithered up onto his back and spoke into his ear.
“No silly. It’s a scar. I slid off a skateboard onto the hot pavement when I was a kid and that’s all that’s left of it.”
“Wow. It looks like something deliberate though.” I started to examine it when he flipped me over and said, “Let me find your scars.” That was the end of that subject because we went for round three. Afterwards we lay there cuddled together and I thought it was so sweet when he kissed the top of my head and whispered, “Claudia, you have to meet Grandma Bertie.” It didn’t matter that we’d only known each other for a couple of weeks. He wanted me to meet his grandmother. ~~~
Grandma Bertie was near ninety-years old and she was awesome. There was no sign of ninety years of wear on her. Her gray-streaked, thick hair was like a crown on her head, pulled back into a thick plait that hung twelve inches down her back. Her pink and beige skin was flawless and, although it had a slight leatheriness, her face was wrinkle-free. Her eyes were like eagles; intense and vivacious like she was about to shout at you for something, but there was a smile in them which kept you from feeling intimidated. She was slightly taller than me; straight and upright; thin, but not frail. In fact, when we pulled up to the property and saw three people working around a felled tree, I was shocked when Rick said to me “There she is,” nodding toward a figure that was at the helm of a wheelbarrow. The two black men working at the tree with her were both burly and strong looking, but grey-haired like her. She looked up and waved when she saw the car.
“She’s how old?” I asked incredulously.
Rick just laughed.
She was strong and possessed a salient beauty. She seemed to have the energy of a 12-year-old. I just concluded she was one of those people with “good genes.” They all had good genes, I was soon to find.
Grandma Bertie had nine sons and three daughters. Rick was one of seventeen living grandchildren, six had died. They all convened at her house in the Tennessee Mountains at the same time every year. They didn’t do Thanksgiving and Christmas together, but they had this special time in July when they all had to show. They would begin straggling in around the second week of July and by the 15th they were all present and stayed through to the 30th. I thought that odd, but every family has their own ways.
When Rick introduced me, she stood back and looked me over like she was inspecting a horse. She even put her hand on my shoulder and turned me around. I couldn’t be insulted somehow. I smiled without showing my teeth and kept my head up and looked her in the eyes. I knew I had to look her in the eyes.
“Well then, Missy,” she said. Then she took my hand, wrapped her other arm around Rick’s waist and said lightheartedly, “Let’s go on up to the house and meet the other rogues.”
Rick let out an obvious sigh of relief and delved right into conversation about what she was cooking for us. I let them pull me along. I think I passed.
All of Grandma Bertie’s children were inredibly good-looking; and they were also all successful men and women– three lawyers; two surgeons; a banker; a university professor; a mechanical engineer and a couple of thriving business owners. Rick introduced each of them to me with names and credentials. Their submissive demeanor in the presence of Grandma Bertie impressed me more than their lists of accomplishments. It was a little weird, I have to say; not that people don’t usually defer to their mothers; but, there was something more than that. More like a reverential fear. Everything was “Yes Muhmaw” and “No, Muhmaw” and “Ask Muhmaw this,” and “See what Muhmaw says…” about that.
All seventeen grandchildren showed. They lavished her with gifts and affection as they arrived. There were hugs and kisses and lifting her up and swinging her around, in spite of her stern scolding.
“Stop that now. Stop that boy,” she said, and swung at them with whatever was in her hand. She scowled and straightened herself when they let her go, but it was obvious that she was pleased by it.
The two story country farmhouse was inviting. It must have been 100 years old. From the front of the house you couldn’t see the three guesthouses in back; all connected by shaded walkways to the main house. It was incredibly comfortable inside, even with their entire family milling around. A spacious main room held two huge oak tables, as if Grandma Bertie housed a crew of lumberjacks.
When we came in, some of Rick’s family was seated around the tables, laughing and talking to one another. On the other side of the main room an ample fireplace was framed by floor-to-ceiling shelves, filled with books and plaques and pictures. Around it, three overstuffed sofas and several plush armchairs invited occupancy. In the den there was an elaborate and expensive looking stereo system, a computer and a HAM radio.
“No TV?” I asked Rick after he’d shown me around and I hadn’t noticed one.
“Muhmaw doesn’t believe in things that distract the family from communing with one another.”
“Communing,” I giggled at the odd word. “Well, that’s nice. I guess.”
Rick frowned. “There’s one in the last guesthouse. But nobody goes out there…anymore.”
“Ant Sylvie used to spend all her time out there.”
I wanted to ask more about it, but the way he said “She died,” was so cold. Something on the inside of me said “Leave it.” I don’t know if it was his look or his tone, but I knew he wasn’t going to go into it, so…
Throughout the huge space little groups of his family huddled together talking or otherwise engaged in different activities. Around the tables their conversations ebbed and flowed with family members jumping in and tagging out as the days went by. I stayed closed to Rick and observed everyone. They were such a beautiful and accomplished family. But, it finally dawned on me –there were no girls. Only Rick’s three aunts, Grandma Bertie’s daughters were there.
Savoynne, Astrid and Margot seemed to make themselves scarce. They fluttered in and out of the kitchen with stuff, attending to their brothers, nephews and sons. When they weren’t doing that, they sat together in front of the fireplace and leaned in talking to each other as if they had secret catching up to do.
Aren’t any of these men married? Where were their wives? I thought. Rick told me they were busy, professional women and their husband’s just didn’t pressure them to be here every year. That seemed reasonable. He’d already told me that his parents were divorced when he was still an infant.
“There were problems,” he told me when I asked about his mother. But then he cut me off saying he didn’t really remember much about her. “She died,” he finished it. There was that feeling again — the distinct invitation not to delve any further. I left it alone. I’m just not a prier. People have their own business. I didn’t necessarily want to talk about what happened to my parents either.
One evening Grandma Bertie sat at the big tables with her sons and grandsons and me. When she asked me about my family it caught me a little off guard because all other conversation suddenly stopped short and everyone turned to look directly at me.
“Who are your parents dear? Do you come from a large family?”
“No Miss Bertie. Actually I’m an orphan now. My parents are gone and I’m an only child.”
“Oh my. Your relatives?” she asked.
“No living relatives. I didn’t come from a booming family like yours.” I figured that would garner a few sympathetic looks or perhaps an understanding smile from around the table, but no.
“It’s just you then?” Grandma Bertie asked.
“Muhmaw,” Rick’s father, who had shown little or no interest in me to this point, said. “She just moved east from California?” He said it in the form of a question, as if reminding her of something they’d already discussed.
“Well…you’re here with us now. Aren’t you?”
“ee-Yes,” I wasn’t sure if that was the correct answer.
“Let’s all take our before-dinner walk,” she abruptly left off talking to me and announced. “Girls,” she addressed her daughters, “you’re on prep.”
“Yes Muhmaw,” the three women answered dutifully from their spot in front of the fireplace.
Rick took my hand, but I said to him, “I’ll stay here and help your aunts.”
“Oh, uhhh… they can handle it,” He seemed tense. “Muhmaw wants you to go with us.” He pulled me a little.
“No, you go on,” I suddenly felt like I wanted to exert some obstinacy regarding “Muhmaw.”
“Rick, “Grandma Bertie told him, “let Claudia stay with the girls. She can learn how to prep.”
“Yeah, I can learn how to prep,” I echoed cheerfully. And I swear this– they all turned at that moment and glared at me. It was just a flash of a moment, but I definitely saw it and I felt it. The smile on my face became work right then. “I-I’d like to help your aunts.”
“Muhmawww?” Savoynne looked questioningly at her mother.
“Yes Savoynne?” Grandma Bertie lowered her voice and shot her piercing eyes at her daughter.
“Nothing, “she quickly responded. Then to me she said, “Claudia, we’d love some help.”
Rick kissed me and promised to be back in no more than an hour. I headed up the stairs to the room where Rick and I were staying. “Be right back, Savoynne.”
Once inside, I shut the door to the bathroom and leaned back against it. What was that? I thought. I went over to the sink and stared into the mirror. Don’t be paranoid. It was nothing. I closed my eyes and gave myself a minute to settle. Then I turned the faucet, splashed the cool water on my face, patted my skin dry with a guest-towel and took a deep breath. “Okay. Just chill,” I told myself. When I turned and opened the bathroom door to leave, Astrid was standing there. I jumped.
“Astrid! You gave me a start.”
“Why did you come here?” she hissed at me.
“Beg pardon?” I said, but I was thinking, “What the fuck now?”
Just as she opened her mouth to answer, Savoynne walked up behind her.
“We’re waiting for you two,” she smiled cloyingly.
Astrid looked at me with wide eyes and shook her head infinitesimally. She transformed her face into a smile and grabbed my hand. “Here we come,” she said towing me along.
“This is Muhmaw’s homemade strawberry wine, “ Savoynne announced as she handed me a glass. We refilled twice. It tasted great and I immediately caught a nice, mellow buzz. I needed a buzz. “Hit me again,” I told Margot.
“Say cheese,” Savoynne surprised me, snapping a Polaroid of me.
“Oh no, that’s going to be awful,” I moaned.
“No it isn’t. It was candid. You looked relaxed. Come on.”
I followed them out through the back door with my third refill in hand. We walked down the paved path past the first guesthouse, and behind it we came into a lovely clearing. All the seating and tables had been skillfully crafted from tree trunks and were arrayed around a huge fire pit. A roasting pig hung on a spit, turning slowly over fiery embers and sending a warm delicious smell into the air.
“This is beautiful. My God, who did this furniture?”
“George and Hezekiah made all this,” Margot answered. “They’ve been with Muhmaw forever.”
She picked up a poker and began pushing at the burning embers in the pit. When she stooped to pick up another piece of wood, I noticed it.
“Wow. You’ve got a scar like Ricks,” Was I slurring?
“On your back.”
She reached around to feel as if she wasn’t aware of it, “Oh that’s a birthmark.”
I only caught a glimpse of it, but I could have sworn it was the same as Rick’s scar.
“Where are George and Hezekiah? They need to turn this,” Margot left off talking to me and called to her sister.
“Claudia, would you place candles on all these poles you see,” Savoynne waved her hand dramatically indicating the decorative poles situated around the clearing, “and the rest on benches and tables, please.”
I set about to the task, but my mind continued to grind away. That was the same mark. What was Astrid about to say to me? Something is off around here.
Just then George and Hezekiah came into the clearing. They were the two men I’d seen in the woods with Grandma Bertie as we arrived. They exchanged a few words with Margot and then proceeded to deal with turning the pig.
After I’d placed the last candle, I sat down to finish my glass of wine. Savoynne must have refilled it as I was working. The glowing candles, the fire pit, and the general hazy ambience of the clearing were helping me relax more…and the wine, of course.
I watched the two men as they lifted the pole and angled around the pit. They seemed to be very strong for their age. Their haggard faces and the slow way they moved reflected years that their bodies didn’t display. They took their time with the task and spoke in low voices to each other. George swiped a rag from his back pocket and wiped at his brow. The heat from the fire pit must have been getting to them. Hezekiah stopped and pulled his sweaty shirt off over his head. When he turned to face the pit again, there on his lower back was that scar, tattoo –whatever– it was the same mark.
I gasped and then Savoynne was right beside me, as if she just materialized there.
“Is something wrong, dear?”
“No,” I blurted out. Yes, something was wrong.
“Have some more wine,” She filled my glass for the fifth time.
“Where’s Astrid?” I asked, trying to bring my voice down an octave to sound nonchalant… and sober.
“She’s up at the house,” she answered with a slightly suspiciously edge.
“I’ll go see if she needs any help.”
“You don’t…,” Savoynne started, but then she looked almost resigned and said, “Go ahead.”
I was making my way back up the path toward the house when I spotted Astrid standing in the door of the last guesthouse. She waved at me frantically with one hand and held her finger to her lips with the other. I looked around to be sure no one was watching and then darted across the garden to her.
“Come in here,” she sputtered at me. Then she shut the door, latched it behind me and turned to me with a look of sheer panic. “You’ve got to get out of here.”
“They’re going to kill you.”
I was a little woozy. I shook my head, “Who? What are you talking about?”
“Look around, Claudia.”
I obeyed her, turning to look around the cottage. It was a charming country room; flowered patterns everywhere. A large bay window with sheer-draped curtains brought in bright rays of moonlight over the window seat. A sofa, a piano, several tables, and tons of pictures filled the space perfectly. Dozens of framed pictures covered the walls.
“It’s warm in here. Are you warm?” That wine. I couldn’t think straight.
“Look. Look at the pictures,” she grabbed my shoulders and shook me.
I picked up one of the frames from an end table. In it was a beautiful, young woman. She was smiling. I replaced it and picked up another. It was of another woman sitting in the clearing on one of the tree-trunk benches; not smiling, but normal looking. I walked deeper into the room and over to the wall of frames. All pictures of women smiling, relaxed and normal. There was nothing unusual in any of them.
“They’ve killed all these… all these women…to get their essence. Don’t you see? Rick brought you here to get your essence.”
I squinted, “My what? I gotta sit down.” I was trying to understand her, but I couldn’t focus. Her face registered abject terror and I wanted to react; but, it was as if my body wasn’t connecting with my head. The room seemed to be narrowing.
“Claudia? “ Margot suddenly called from right outside the cottage. “ASTRID!”
Astrid jerked around to face the bolted door.
“Astrid, what are you doing?” Savoynne’s eerily calm voice sounded through the door.
Astrid’s shoulders dropped as she turned back to look at me. Her eyes had now changed from panic to pity. She shook her head slowly. She unlatched the door and opened it. Savoynne and Margot both stood there. They glared at their sister disgustedly, “Muhmaw is not going to like this Astrid. You’re just like Sylvie. Come along Claudia.”
Margot put her arm around my shoulder, “You mustn’t pay her any attention. We should have warned you. Astrid has some issues.”
“But those women,” now I was definitely slurring, “in the pictures.”
“Those are just family pictures, dear,” Savoynne answered, following closely behind us. “Astrid is on medication. Sometimes she just misfires.”
As we neared the clearing Rick came walking toward us. Was I glad to see him.
“What’s going on?” he asked. He handed me his glass of strawberry wine.
“It’s Astrid,” Margot said. At that, he shot her an intense look as he put his arm around my waist.
“It’s okay,” she continued, “she’s fine. Aren’t you Claudia?”
“I’m fine,” I smiled at him. But he was fuzzy. “A little too much of this, maybe,” I held up the glass.
“Drink your wine, love,” he said to me, pushing the glass to my lips. I had to tilt my head back to keep the liquid from spilling down my blouse. “Come on. They’re waiting.”
“Who’s waiting?” My tongue felt thick.
When we entered the clearing Rick’s entire family was gathered. The all stood in a circle. A circle of eyes watching me. Grandma Bertie stood in the center, in front of the pit.
“My dear,” she spoke to me as we came closer, “I’m sure Rick has told you things about our family. My sons are very successful men; all at the pinnacle of their professions; my grandsons, as well. Have you had a chance to talk with each of them? No matter,“ she answered her own question. “I can tell you, in all their endeavors, they are the very best. You see what handsome and strong men they are,” she looked around adoringly at her beautiful clan.
“This is our legacy because we have kept the old way. I am one hundred and eighty-three years, and I have sacrificed much to preserve our seed,” she pointed at her grandsons. “All these boys’ mothers have participated in what is necessary now. You should feel honored.”
The panic choked me. My limbs felt like mush as Rick walked me over to stand in front of her. George and Hezekiah came and stood on either side of me, taking my arms. I didn’t struggle. I couldn’t. Rick then went to stand beside Muhmaw. His father walked over to him, ceremoniously handed him an ornately, jeweled scalpel and kissed him proudly.
“It’s your time son,” he said.
Grandma Bertie placed her hands over Rick’s hands. Together they stepped up to me. I watched, completely still, as she guided his hands with the blade across one of my wrists, then the other.
I felt nothing. I opened my mouth to protest, but no words came. I blinked aimlessly, turning to look at the men holding my arms. My head swiveled back to see Rick’s family standing around me. They all stared back at me kindly.
That’s the look I’d expected to see when I told them I was an orphan, I thought.
My eyes went to Rick and that charming smile of his. He winked at me.
And then, I was gone.
“George, Hezekiah… let her bleed out now. We don’t want the blood,” Grandma Bertie directed and then she stiffly turned to face her daughter, “Astrid, come here.”
“Muhmaw, I…” Astrid started pitifully.
“How could you?” Muhmaw shook her head disappointedly, “I’d hoped Sylvie would be our last necessary example, but I see we still have some branding to do.”
“Muhmaw, if only we could…” Astrid’s body was quaking.
“Samuel, bring it here.”
Her eldest son went over to the firing pit and pulled out the long iron. Astrid steeled herself and walked over to Muhmaw of her own accord. She clenched her jaw and tears flowed down her cheeks.
“You’ll carry this monition on your body now, since you haven’t been able to hold it in your heart,” her mother told her. “If this doesn’t help you, there’s no more to be done. This is the only warning. Do you understand that? Erlund. Jon. Come here and help your sister.”
Two more of Muhmaw’s sons came. Erlund wrapped his arms around his sister as if embracing for a hug. Jon put his arms around them both and raised her blouse. Grandma Bertie looked around at her family; her penetrating eyes slowing scanning each face. Then she pressed the glowing odd metal shape onto her daughter’s lower back.
George and Hezekiah methodically prepared Claudia’s body for the Refection. Everything was done right there in front of the firing pit. The family watched in silence. The only sound heard over the slicing and cutting away of flesh and bone was the occasional soft whimper of Astrid’s pain as one of the brothers administered a tonic to her burning skin. They harvested every organ and then they covered the remains of her slaughtered body with cords of wood and set it aflame in the midst of the gathering.
The family solemnly passed the girl’s organs around their circle. Each of them shuddered ecstatically as they bit into her parts. Their heads lifted upwards, their eyes closed; they moaned and sighed with displays of enraptured delectation as they felt the pure essence of her life coursing into them.
When the moments of their pleasure had passed, Grandma Bertie spoke again in a measured oratory cadence.
“I’m so proud of Rickaard. It was his time and he showed himself strong, as I knew he would. We had a small issue…” she paused and looked at Astrid, “but we’ve dealt with it. These past fifty years have been increasingly harder. Yet we’ve continued and remained strong. Most importantly, we’ve not tainted our line with the blood the way the vampires have done for so long. When the old ones, like George and Hezekiah were brought over they taught us to take in the soul-power, the strength, and the vitality of the life through the organs of the sacrifice. The vital organs carry the essence of the life’s power, not the blood.”
They all listened intently, gravely taking in her words and nodding slowly, mechanically in agreement. She continued…
“What a blessing that their ancient African culture was so intertwined with ours, and added so mightily to that which we already held sacred. Praises be to Odin.”
“Praises be to Odin,” they all echoed reverently.
She gestured toward Astrid, “I abhor marking my children, but some of you have had to be reminded. The waywardness of this current age has tried to corrupt you,” she shook her head. “Those of you who have it, put your hand back there and feel your reminder. Go on.”
Fourteen of her twenty-nine children and grandchildren, and Hezekiah, reached behind themselves to feel the crudely-shaped, raised scar on their backs.
“This is the way we’ve survived for centuries. It has never been up for discourse or opinion and it’s not going to change now. No. We will not succumb to the pattern of this age…questioning the wisdom of the elders; abandoning the practices that have sustained us,“ she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. We should be celebrating now, but we’ve had to spend these moments in rebuke. Well, it’s not wasted. Anton,” Bertie brightened her eyes and turned to Astrid’s son.
“Yes, Muhmaw?” The handsome, young, Philadelphia lawyer straightened himself to answer his grandmother.
“Your wife will be here for the next Refection, yes?”
Astrid lifted her head and looked up for the first time since she received her mark…her reminder. “Muhmaw,” she called out feebly.
“Yes, Astrid,” Bertie turned the full force of her gaze onto her wounded daughter.
Astrid labored to straightened her stance. Her shoulders lifted with the first full breath she’d been able to take since before the searing pain penetrated her skin. She tilted her chin upward, widened her eyes and furrowed her brow for a look to match the ferocity of her kin. “I will never, ever bring this up again.”
Muhmaw’s stern look dissolved into a prideful smile. “I love you dear,” she assured her. Then to them all she said, “Now go. Back to your lives everyone. Until next July.”
They all came to Muhmaw one by one. They kissed and held her for long embraces as if they could hardly stand to leave her presence. Next they each went to Astrid and lavished affection on her, stroking her face and kissing her hand.
Savoynne and Margot stood together, apart from the rest. Their faces still faintly displaying looks of disgust until Muhmaw jerked her head harshly at them, wordlessly directing them to go to their sister. Their touching together finally forced them to surrender to familial bonds. Soon the three of them stood whispering together again as they ever did.
The family all dispersed during the night. By mid morning Grandma Bertie and George and Hezekiah had restored the entire house and the lovely grounds of the clearing to its former pristine state. All evidence of the sacrifice was gone. Her name, along with the hundreds of others, would never be mentioned among them again… Claudia.